orange is the new black

I became obsessed with this tv show last week. I was dubious about anything Netflix could put out (Season 4 of Arrested Development, AMIRITE) but I was happily proved wrong. Soon I didn’t care about anything else, to the point where when I wasn’t watching it, I was thinking about it, I was wondering what was going to happen next, I was reliving humorous or awfully sad moments, I was thinking about which characters I loved and which characters I wanted to knife. In the words of one television recapper, “This series will not end satisfactorily for me unless I get to murder Todd with my bare hands.” [Breaking Bad]. I felt the same way about Pennsatucky. I recommend this show to everyone, except maybe those who have a moral aversion to scenes of lesbianism, but if that’s the case I don’t know why you’re reading this blog anyway. Back to the point, I know we’ve all experienced that – how 13 episodes later you wish you had watched it slower because now that there’s no more episodes your life has lost all its meaning. I’m a victim of first world problems and the information age.

I decided to read the book on which the show is based. Having done so, I now wish to share some of my observations about this book and the justice system in general.

Everyone Needs Community. For some time, I’ve been hopped up on this idea that keeps creeping into my brain – that we are alone and that God has left us alone. On purpose. It doesn’t do wonders for our relationship, but that’s just where I’m at if I’m being honest, and if you don’t like it then you can go somewhere else and read someone’s super-cheery fired-up evangelical blog about how God is doing amazing things in their life. You aren’t going to find that here.

I admit that it is odd that I think that because I live in a community house. I’ve based my life on a principle that is completely antithetical to how I think I really feel about it. But I’ve chosen to live my life differently despite my personal feelings, and I’ve done that because I don’t have to believe what I think. This reality was confirmed for me in some of Piper’s words about community in prison, a hostile and terrifying environment-

The more friends I had, the more people wanted to feed me; it was like having half a dozen Jewish mothers…I had been raised to follow the ethos of Stoicism….the Stoic can have perfect freedom, provided he emancipates himself from mundane desires. Stoicism sure comes in handy when they take away your underpants. But how to reconcile it with one’s insatiable need for other people? Surely my desire for connection, for intimacy, for human touch was not “mundane”? The very worst punishment that we can come up with short of death is total isolation from other humans, the Supermax Seg, solitary, the Hole, the SHU.

I would seem to have been ready-made for prison time, as a familiar jailhouse trope says “you come in alone and you walk out alone,” and common counsel is to keep to oneself and mind your own business. But that’s not what I learned in prison. That’s not how I survived in prison. What I discovered was that I am emphatically not alone…I realized I was not alone in the world because of the women who I lived with for over a year, who gave me a dawning recognition of what I shared with them. We shared overcrowded dorms and lack of privacy. We shared eight numbers instead of names, prison khakis, cheap food, and hygiene items. Most important – we shared a deep reserve of humour, creativity in adverse circumstances, and the will to protect and maintain our own humanity despite the prison system’s imperative to crush it.

Perhaps the prison system is ineffectual. I realize that’s not a crazy, ground-breaking observation but I had honestly never really thought about it before. I thought it was better than the electric chair. I thought it was regrettable that people had to go to prison, but I thought people were in there because they had done something bad and people have to know that there are consequences to their actions, otherwise they’ll just do whatever they want. Basically, people have to have something that will stop them from doing bad things, otherwise they’ll just do bad things. All the time. However, after reading this book it was easy to see that most of the women who were in there weren’t people who were malicious or had incorrect ideas about what was wrong or right. As Piper puts it :

Prison is quite literally a ghetto in the most classic sense of the word, a place where the U.S. government now puts not only the dangerous but also the inconvenient – people who are mentally ill, people who are addicts, people who are poor and uneducated and unskilled. Meanwhile the ghetto on the outside world is a prison as well, and a much more difficult one to escape from than this correctional compound. In fact, there is basically a revolving door between our urban and rural ghetto and the formal ghetto of our prison system.

So, we’re living within a system that sometimes creates “criminals” – though these people have free will, it is true, they’re raised within a certain culture or environment that creates a certain stereotype, a person that will be 10 times more likely to end up within prison than, say, me. Because I’m white. And my parents give me money because they’re nice and they like me. My support system is intricate and wide and reinforced with steel cables. Most of the people who end up in prison have never had that. And instead of ending up in a system that will help rehabilitate, a “restorative justice” type of model, they end up in a “punitive justice” type of system that only serves to perpetuate their way of thinking and behaving. Their resources are few and the mentality is that they deserve to be where they are and so compassion that would have otherwise been afforded them is hard to find.  True penitence – which is what the prison system is supposed to be for – rarely happens. Piper’s writings illustrate this so clearly that reading it was like a slap in my face.

I had a gangster mentality. Gangsters only care about themselves and theirs. My overwhelming regret over my actions was because of the trauma I had caused my loved ones. I scoffed at the idea that the “War on Drugs” was anything but a joke…but now, when I looked at dismay at Allie, who was champing at the bit to get back to her drugs; and when I thought about whether Pennsatucky would be able to keep it together, when I worried about my many friends whose health was crushed by Hepatitis and HIV; and when I saw in the visiting room how addiction had torn apart the bonds between mothers and their children, I finally understood the true consequences of my own actions. I had helped these terrible things happen.

What made me finally realize this…was sitting and talking and working with people who had suffered because of what people like me had done. None of these women rebuked me – most of them had been intimately involved in the drug business themselves. Yet for the first time I really understood how my choices made me complicit in their suffering. I was the accomplice to their addiction.

A lengthy term of community service working with addicts on the outside probably would have driven the same truth home and been a hell of a lot more productive for the community. But our current criminal justice system has no provision for restorative justice, in which an offender confronts the damage they have done and tries to make it right with the people they have harmed. Instead, our system of “corrections” is about arm’s-length revenge and retribution, all day and all night. Then its overseers  wonder why people leave prison more broken than when they went in.

Obviously we can’t live like this. HOW DO WE CHANGE IT? WHY IS THIS HAPPENING? Then I started to get confused and distressed and crazed, but I needn’t have jumped on my horse to ride to battle, because Piper was there to help me with the solution, too –

I am confident that someday in the future the Rock, who was once a professional wrestler, will run for president of the United States, and I think that he will win. I have seen with my own eyes the power of the Rock. The Rock is a uniter, not a divider. When the BOP showed Walking Tall, the turnout for every screening all weekend long was unprecedented. The Rock has an effect on women that transcends divisions of race, age, cultural background – even social class, that most impenetrable barrier in America. Black, white, spanish, old, young, all women are hot for the Rock. Even the lesbians agreed that he was mighty easy on the eyes.

So, there you have it. The prison system might be fucked, but there is one person who can unite us all and that is the Rock. As long as he is out there, our hope is not gone. If he can get the lesbians and the spanish mamis to watch a movie together in harmony, then there’s probably not much else he can’t do.

Image

Don’t worry, you guys. I’ve got this.

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